Literary Qualities

Paul is a charismatic leader who can foresee some of the results of his actions. However, a character’s ability to know the future presents significant problems for an author attempting to maintain suspense within the narrative. Often a writer will solve the problem by having the future-seeing character foresee a terrible doom; tension is then created by the struggle against that impending doom. Sometimes the struggle is complicated by characters who refuse to believe the prophesies. This happens to the prophetess Cassandra in Homer’s Iliad, where readers know something that most of the characters do not know-that Cassandra’s prophesies are valid. In such a case, tension arises from the possibility that some character may yet believe the prophet and thus avert disaster.

Herbert takes a different approach to this problem: he emphasizes Paul’s human fallibility. Paul is inconsistent in his ability to foresee the future. He and others can visualize the future only at times. This inconsistency means that Paul may be mistaken in his foresight; at times he is uncertain whether he is seeing the future or merely hallucinating.

In addition, others have mental powers that seem to enable them to evade Paul’s foresight-to act without Paul knowing what they will do. The Bene Gesserit women and the members of the Spacing Guild have this ability, and they possess extraordinary mental powers that make them important threats to Paul’s plans. The future that Paul sees depends on the interactions of many people, some of whom may be unpredictable. Paul tries to bring about the future he wants by means of his own actions, but not even he can be sure what will actually happen.

One of the reasons reviewers initially disliked Dune was its resemblance to J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955), which had profoundly influenced popular fiction. Tolkien created an imaginary world called “Middle Earth,” replete with its own history, customs, societies, languages, and literature. Dune, too, has these elements, and some reviewers seemed weary of seeing what they considered imitations of Tolkien’s trilogy.

One of the similarities between The Lord of the Rings and Dune is the use of quotations from imaginary writings to give events the illusion of historical perspective, as if each story were part of a larger history of Middle Earth or the galactic empire. Tolkien scatters his quotations throughout his trilogy, whereas Herbert begins each chapter with quotes from such works as “A Child’s History of Muad’Dib” by the Princess Irulan. Like The Lord of the Rings, Dune has appendices that explain customs and places in the novel; like Tolkien’s trilogy, it glosses terms from its imaginary languages and cultures. In addition, Dune shares with The Lord of the Rings the qualities of an epic tale, turning on the confrontation between good and evil and depicting exile, long journeys, and battles more reminiscent of those of the Middle Ages than of the 20th century.

However, even though Dune may imitate aspects of The Lord of the Rings, it has its own special qualities. Herbert is much more interested in the dynamics of a society under stress and a society’s relationship to the natural environment than is Tolkien. Although both authors explore the natures of good and evil, they differ in their points of view. The Lord of the Rings tells of how individual heroics may confound the mustered forces of evil; Dune tells of the dangers created when individual people immerse themselves in powerful groups, surrendering their individuality to powers greater than themselves.

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